Beating Giants like Cabela’s and Bass Pro Shops: The eCommerceOutdoors Story Pt. 2

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Back again with eCommerceOutdoors’ co-founder and marketing head “Do it All” Patrick Gill. In this second half of our interview, we’re focusing on technology–the past, present and a future that looks increasingly to be an open source one. (Read Part 1 here).

Moving to technology and the nut and bolts of operating a site. Yahoo! Stores is well known as an excellent place to get started in online retailing and you’ve been on it for years now. Now that you’ve become a successful retailer, what are the pros and cons for remaining with Yahoo!?
Yahoo! offers retailers a very affordable platform that saves you lots of headaches. I think it would be difficult to find a PCI compliant, fully hosted ecommerce platform for the same budget. Particularly if you went the do-it-yourself route, say, by getting a server from Rackspace. While I think the price provides excellent value, your flexibility is limited. The back-end prevents you from doing some things simply. You’re forced to customize and create workarounds. There are extreme differences between an established platform like Yahoo! and Magento, which was designed from scratch for web 2.0/3.0 (or whatever they’re calling it these days).

As a company, we’re pretty loyal to Yahoo! and the Yahoo! platform. Still, if a company knows that it will grow beyond $5-15M in annual sales, I think they are going to ultimately regret choosing Yahoo! When we launched our newest store, I wanted to see what I was missing, which is why I researched alternatives and ultimately chose Magento. Revamping that site has been a good learning experience and an opportunity to really see the pros and cons of Yahoo!

Is Yahoo! a flexible platform for integrating the latest operational, web design, merchandizing and payment technologies and services?
Yahoo! isn’t a platform that offers the latest and greatest. It is always a couple of steps behind and there are number of integration and technology challenges that are really frustrating. One of the most obvious examples is integrating an alternative payment option like Google Checkout. While the Google Checkout icon can help your PPC clickthrough rates, if you actually want to integrate it, you’ll violate the terms of your Yahoo! agreement.

Talk about the Yahoo! Stores retailer and developer communities…what are their value?
These communities are really important. When we started out, we didn’t outsource anything because we couldn’t afford it. We learned Yahoo’s proprietary programming language, RTML, and grew the site to a level where we could afford to outsource. Once we had a development budget, we tapped the developer community. The sites wouldn’t be where they are today without the contributions of the professional store developer community.

Talking specifically about the Yahoo! platform, what are three things that you did that you would have done differently had you known better?
A. I’d like our site to be faster. We need to make some optimization changes but I’m going to have to do some research because I’m not sure right now if it is the underlying code or a graphics issue.

B. We need a lot more sophistication in our supplier chain. I would have really loved to have spent a lot more time developing real-time integration of our inventory data. We’ve since created workarounds but they are not as ideal as doing the most effective way right from the beginning.

C. The third change would have been to spend a lot more time and care building our product database. It is really valuable to have complete product information or attributes (notably dimensions and weights). This is especially true for retailers who drop ship. Complete product data helps minimize shipping costs. It helps you provide real-time shipping calculation to customers when they are in your shopping cart. It helps you calculate by dimensional weight. I can’t overemphasize the importance of having an accurate and up-to-date database.

How does Nextopia’s site search technology and modules that you use fit into the Yahoo! Stores world?
Nextopia integrates very easily into the Yahoo! Stores platform and we’ve been a happy customer for over three years. In a perfect world, your product database includes all of the relevant product attributes, which enables you to filter search results. In general, site search benefits a retailer in proportion to the completeness of the underlying product database. By working with Nextopia, we’ve been able to implement some solutions but as I said just now, I really wish we had built our database with complete product attributes from the beginning.

Enough about Yahoo!, let’s talk about Magento and your newly revamped site, IslandBeachGear.com.
Even though Magento’s basic version is open source and the vendor doesn’t charge for it, it isn’t your least cost option by any means. Magento is neither simple, nor is it free. It took many, many hours to develop our IslandBeachGear.com site to the point where it is now. It required a lot of tweaking to get it right and you’ll probably require some knowledgeable developers. We used a combination of in-house resources and some third-party development. Additionally, the hosting level you need to have a fast website is expensive.

Nextopia Site Search integrated on a Magento site-IslandBeachGear.com

Nextopia Site Search integrated on a Magento site-IslandBeachGear.com

In contrast, you can get a Yahoo! Store up and running in no time. In about twenty minutes, I could create a functioning one or two SKU Yahoo! Store that could actually take orders and process payments. It wouldn’t look pretty but it would work. In contrast, Magento isn’t nearly as easy to use. The tradeoff is much greater flexibility. I’ve been very impressed by the design and usability and the out-of-box functionality. I love the flexibility. There is no limit to what I can do. I haven’t run into one adjustment or request that we couldn’t implement. With Yahoo, I run into roadblocks all the time. Magento is designed using the latest software technologies and online retailing, marketing and merchandising processes. The SEO capabilities, integrated reviews and real-time inventory access are great. That said, I would love it if Magento provided an on-demand platform like Yahoo!

Thanks very much to Patrick. Great information and guidance from someone who’s been in the ecommerce trenches for a decade. As you can see, the road to success requires a lot of hard work and iterative trial. If you fish or know someone who fishes and might appreciate an angling-themed Christmas gift, you know where to start your shopping.

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